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In defence of the selfie

The world's contempt for the selfie is odd because we worship it when it is in disguise

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

More tragic than death is death that is funny. Men perishing during sex, for instance, even though there cannot be a better way to go, or after tripping on one’s own beard, which has happened. In the family of such departures is death by selfie.

Tourists have fallen off mountains, they have drowned, and they have been slammed by trains while taking selfies. As in the case of other deaths, it is not the penultimate act in itself that is funny but the fact that it has led to the final act. In selfie deaths, there is also the ignominy of vanity; the victim was relegating a great monument to the backdrop, and promoting himself to prominence, making his best face, which is usually a serious face because it has no creases, but all along he was only photographing his final moments. Such deaths are rare but they are newsworthy, and a perception has taken root that they are rampant. In several tourist spots around the world, the selfie is banned.

The world is not a serious place at all, especially if we consider humans, yet people have contempt for the selfie precisely because they perceive it as a frivolous activity. Locals and tourists find selfie-takers annoying. Even people who take selfies think poorly of those who take selfies. On yoga day, when Narendra Modi emerges in public, he refuses to let his devotees take selfies with him because the decadence of the selfie has no place against the sacred backdrop of yoga.

Does the selfie deserve more respect?

There does exist a form of selfie that is highly revered. It is serious reading. What is perceived as intellectual consumption is also largely a search for the self in a story or a memoir. I am not being abstract or even metaphorical at all. Readers can be quite specific in their demand to be seen in your story—their childhood, their grandparents, their temples, their cities, their lanes, their loves—and they often see so much of themselves you wonder if all our stories are the same.

The most powerful, hence successful, novels are stories in which a broad constituency, like a gender or failed lovers or a race, are able to see their own lives. This need has over time evolved into a demand—that a reader be shown himself inside a story—which has, naturally, created a supply. When novelists speak of creating characters who “relate" to the reader, they are talking of the high craft of guessing what might make a reader imagine, mistakenly, that it is all about him, and about the unspoken corruption of supplying to this demand.

Readers who seek knowledge from reading, who wish to know more about the universe than themselves, are much rarer than we think.

Almost all of high art is, in reality, a process of showing a mirror to an observer. Most of art, it appears, is a selfie. Often, art is the selfie of the creators themselves which is misunderstood as empathy. Such creations of self-absorption are, of course, presented in respectable disguises as autobiographical novels, memoirs, or even plain self-portraits, one of which might be the most famous painting in the world, Mona Lisa.

Galileo Galilei was right when he said that Earth is not the centre of the universe. It is not Earth, it is we. The universe is some kind of a large pink disc that goes around us. No other sentient being in the universe sees what we see, that exact thing we see. That is why people take photographs wherever they go. We know that far greater photographers have taken unattainably exquisite images of almost everything, but what we are capturing is the fact that we exist, that we were there, that we are important. This self-regard is the core of love, that part of love which is about being loved. We can see it in the sudden sweet faces of people when they speak of their childhood, and also in their valiant faces when they speak of their sacred modern problems, and their concerns about Aadhaar, their vulnerabilities on the social media and other intrusions into their privacy. Fear, these days, is a form of tribute that people give their own precious lives. So many selfies are not called selfies.

Why then must the photographic selfie be treated as an anomaly?

It is now apparent that most humans in possession of a smartphone will take a selfie. That they never used to do this until recently is a matter concerning the nature of cameras, not the nature of humans.

Not only is it natural for humans to take selfies, it is now apparent that they do many things only because they know they can take selfies and broadcast them. Last year, I walked on a frozen river for eight days in the company of some, at least two of whom would not have been there if it were not for the purpose of taking their own images against the slightly less important backdrop of nature. On another trip, men and women plunged into the freezing Antarctic waters partly or chiefly because they were recording themselves as they jumped off the ship. All of us who have social media accounts may often feel that there are people who might not go on vacations or eat or celebrate the birthdays of their children if they cannot take images of those events.

To have contempt for the selfie is to have contempt for the only thing that matters to most people—the little stories of their lives.

Something about the travel selfies that people keep posting reminds me of the travelling gnome, the world’s most popular prank, in which someone steals the clay midget from a person’s garden and periodically sends the owner photographs of the gnome standing in the foreground of famous places around the world. There is something funny about the travelling gnome, set against the famous backdrop, looking at me from a corner of the frame. When I stare long enough at the tourist selfies, too, I start laughing. I don’t know why. Maybe because all our gods and religions and saints have been asking us to liberate ourselves from the self, while the very symbol of modern civilization has become an average unremarkable human’s self-portrait.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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